Double Rainbow: Asperger's and Girls Part 2: "Boys, fashion, shopping, movies, and music"

That's what little girls are made of, apparently.

In my last post, I took a look at the book Asperger's and Girls, a collection of essays that attempt to address the needs and concerns about girls with Asperger syndrome. I found the book to be a disappointment overall, but one chapter in particular stands out as especially heinous. In "Girl to Girl: Advice on Friendship, Bullying, and Fitting In," Lisa Iland, a non-autistic young woman with a sibling on the spectrum, dishes out "practical advice on dealing with the 'popularity hierarchy' and 'levels of relationship'; how to make yourself likeable; using MTV to your advantage; combating bullies; the positive role of gossip; and more."

Wait, MTV? Really? This book was published in 2006. Although it's true: when I read this chapter to myself I can't help but hear Quinn Morgendorffer's voice in my head. I also get the irresitible urge to open up the Wicked soundtrack and listen to "Popular."

I'll (try to) stop there with that kind of mockery, because the images of the vapid blonde "bimbo" and the shallow, self-obsessed social climber are sexist stereotypes in themselves. 

The very foundation of this chapter is the pervasive myth of a monolithic "teen culture" wherein the "typical teen" operates within a rigid, gender-segregated social system with a consistent set of rules and a fixed hierachy based on "popularity." Sure, there are systems governing the distribution of social capital in high school, but this particular concept of teen culture—which endures in part because it is endlessly reproduced in popular media—breaks down really quickly under scrutiny. Who is this "typical" teen? Is s/he white? Brown? Rich? Poor? Urban? Suburban? Rural? Gay? Straight? "Teen culture" does not and cannot describe a single entity. Adolescent cultures are as varied, complex, and dependent on social, economic, and geographic contexts as any other kind of culture.

The chapter starts off with a set of four "Essential Areas to Know In Order to Fit In." These are: 1. Creating image and appeal; 2. Understanding where to fit in; 3. Meeting Social Expectations; 4. Overcoming Bullying and Mean Girls.

Under the first of these areas, "creating an image," Iland offers up such wisdom as:

Things that turn friends away initially are clinginess, obnoxious hyperactivity, insults, and being overly opinionated. [Emphasis mine]

Girls who mainstream their image become part of the girl middle class. Their options open to having more friends to choose from in the mainstream, and they also have the option of being friends of the unusual people instead of being confined to that class.

Not every girl has to be "girly" or involved in makeup and fashion, but even athletic girls and self-proclaimed "tomboys" follow the teen code of hygiene and wear hairstyles and clothes that are socially appropriate for their image.

When a typical girl looks at another girl, she decodes her image to determine what level of social status the girl belongs to. The peer then compares herself to that and decides if she should make an effort at friendliness.

So, "girliness" is defined by an affinity for makeup and fashion? And being "athletic" is somehow antithetical to being "girly?" What, exactly, does it mean for a girl to be "overly opinionated?" Does it mean her convictions are too strong? That she has too many opinions? We certainly can't have girls walking around with too many opinions.

The idea of "class" or "status" is central to Iland's essay, but she never gets into the details of class markers, instead using extremely vague descriptors like "mainstream," "moderate," and "unusual." This is what I find to be the most reprehensible aspect of the piece. One can't talk meaningfully about social status without describing the markers of status, those being qualities like race, economic class, gender presentation, dis/ability, sexuality, et cetera. In the hypothetical social context that Iland is working with, a girl's clothing might seem "unusual" because it makes her look crazy, or working class, or gay and those qualities relegate people to a lower social status. Yet Iland never takes that additional step of interrogating the unspoken reasoning behind peers' judgements and thereby exposing the social hierarchy as oppressive. She just leaves it at "Try not to look unusual."

In the "Understanding where to fit in" section, Iland describes the high school social hierarchy. As she imagines it, it looks like something right out of the Disney Channel: cheerleaders and jocks at the "top" among the "Popular/Elite," most kids somewhere in the "middle," and at the "bottom" are "Unique/Unusual Groups." The vagueness that ends up overwhelming the entire chapter  continues through this section. What exactly does it mean to be "popular?" Popular with whom? Iland offhandedly asserts that "Whoever belongs to this Popular group has what the other teens at the school want," but she never says what exactly that is.

I'm only twenty-three—I was a teen not all that long ago. I recall quite clearly that my (public, suburban, affluent, predominantly white) high school's social structure was far more complex than this simplistic caricature. If I absolutely had to define what "group" I was part of, I'd have to say I was at some intersection between "the smart kids" and "the weird kids"—and as such, the "popular kids" had absolutely nothing that I or my peers wanted, except maybe parents with money. While we had limited social capital in certain circles, the kids whom Iland might identify as "elite" had limited social capital within our circle. That's how teen society actually works. There is an overarching hegemony—manifest in the realities of economic privilege, white privilege, and heteronormativity, for example—but the system isn't a simple top-down hierarchy. And that hegemony is oppressive. It should be interrogated and confronted, not just glossed over and tacitly accepted.

Predictably, Iland presumes that the basic social unit of "girl culture" is the "clique," and she quotes from Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabees" [sic]. Now, I haven't read Queen Bees and Wannabes, but I'm automatically wary of any text that essentializes girlhood and oversimplifies adolescence via archetypes and buzzwords. Certainly I think Wiseman's classification of the seven specific roles within the "clique"—which include, of course, a "queen bee" who "reigns supreme" over the other girls—is far too clear-cut. Also, what about peer relationships between girls and boys? Iland only mentions boys in passing, as people to impress with one's looks because apparently eliciting approval and sexual desire from a male gaze is a "status" boost. What about boys as friends and confidants? 

The section on "Meeting social expectations" has some more timeless pearls:

When a teen girl asks, "Do I look fat?" The answer is always no! White lying is an important friendship skill to have in maintaining the fragile self esteem of teen girls.

Quoting a "friend with AS" named "Kelsey": "Most girls don't want to talk about science or Star Wars. Find something to contribute to what girls talk about. Listen until you can contribute instead of just interrupting with the topic you want to talk about. It is better to be thought of as shy and quiet than loud and obnoxious."

Boys, fashion, shopping, movies, and music will always be teen topics of conversation....

Ethnicity and gender are also determining factors as to what greeting [sic] are appropriate.

Beng alone = being a-loner

Girls with AS who spend lunchtime by themselves should practice looking content and busy in being alone. No typical peers want to befriend a person who is a sulky "loner." The only legitimate reason teens accept for being alone at lunch is because of school obligations....

I should have known that being fat would turn up as an example of the. Worst. POSSIBLE. THING! that could happen to a teenage girl. I would also love to know precisely how ethnicity and gender determine what colloquialisms I should use to greet my peers. (No, seriously, that's the context of that quote.) I was also under the impression that it was acceptable to just, you know, eat during lunchtime. If only I had known what a faux pas it was to spend a few minutes alone!

The fourth and final section deals with "Bullying and mean girls." Bullying has exploded as a cultural fixation, and I don't even know what to say on the matter. Iland certainly isn't up to the task of addressing the issue. She quotes Wiseman some more, and offers feeble advice on comebacks and ignoring harrassment. Fat hatred rears its head again in an anecdote from one of Iland's "typical friends and acquaintances":

I was definitely picked on for being fat. Although I was bullied a lot, I never let it get to me because I was a stronger person than that. I think that people who get made fun of tend to keep the mean comments with them and start to believe them because of the repetitive nature of bullying. I also knew in my mind that letting what they say stick in my mind will not make things any better; if I was going to be happy with who I was I needed to let it go and have my family and friends at my side. The true way I overcame bullying was I changed myself, and got healthier, not for everyone else, but to make myself happier." [Emphasis mine.]

Right. Because if you're harassed for being fat that's a bummer and all, but you know, you really should get healthier—that is, lose weight, because weight and health are the same thing of course. So really those bullies have a point: It is your body that's the real problem, after all. As harsh as it seems when I put it that way, that's the message the story sends: If you're being bullied because you're fat, the real solution is to stop being fat.

In the end, one just has to laugh at "Girl to Girl." It's so spectacularly shallow and stereotypical—and, for a piece ostensibly written by a teen girl for teen girls, so astoundingly out of touch—that it reads like a parody.

Of course, realizing the praise and wide readership that Asperger's and Girls has garnered in the autism community, if we didn't laugh we'd probably cry.

Previously: Asperger's and Girls, Tony Attwood tells us to "make lemonade"

Related: Maybe I should have made the quotations into lolcats

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Comments

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ugh!

This book sounds more like a piece that should be blacklisted instead of being used for ANY kind or reference for one girls!

I am a 23 Year Old who spent her middle school years being tormented INCESSANTLY for merely being different by kids in the community. As a result, I caved in and became almost silent, ate alone, and didn't try to make any new friends. In high School, I wasn't tormented as much, but I was still teased for my liberal leanings; regardless, I made a few lasting friends this time.

The friends I made in college make the torment I endured as a tween and a teen bearable in retrospect. Why? Because unlike what this book suggests, I DIDN'T change who I was, or what I stood for. I polished HOW I expressed all this, but I am still an outspoken, pro gay, choice and feminist female.
( Seeing the same kids who tormented me still in the same town as poor single moms, or suffering from drug addictions and failed marriages doesn't hurt either.)

I'd RATHER be admired for my uniqueness, my borderline gender fluidity, and my amazing personality than for anything else. Am I going to have my detractors? Well, chya! Not everyone is going to agree on how awesome I am! But you know what? That's life!

I read this years ago. Like

I read this years ago. Like you, I wasn't sure if I should laugh, or cry. I'm worried about the damage this "advice" may have done in the lives of some girls.

I want to comment on some lines that you quoted from the book:

Beng alone = being a-loner

Girls with AS who spend lunchtime by themselves should practice looking content and busy in being alone. No typical peers want to befriend a person who is a sulky "loner." The only legitimate reason teens accept for being alone at lunch is because of school obligations....

I found those lines very painful to read. I was (and still am) a loner (well, I prefer not to use that term, but it'll have to do for now), and I remember very well the negative reactions I got (and occasionally still get) because of this. Here's the thing, though: it cuts both ways. People like the author of this piece may not want to befriend "loners," but people like me don't want to befriend people who have negative attitudes towards those they call "loners." And here's another thing: in high school, and in years afterward, some people had made an effort to try to befriend me, despite my "loner" status. I think they were drawn to my quietness, because they were quiet themselves.

Anyway, thanks for writing this.

When, when, WHEN are we going

When, when, WHEN are we going to let go of the whole "teen hierarchy" thing? It's become completely absurd. I hear people using the word "popular" as though it's a curse word-- a woman wrote into an advice column I read a while back, complaining that her daughters were popular. From what she said, her children were popular because they were kind and friendly, but she "railed against popularity" and was determined to make sure her daughters learned how evil it was.
I went to two different high schools-- one a public school in very small town, and one a magnet school in a small city. In both schools, people had their groups of friends and didn't really interact with anyone outside of their group. Many groups contained people who played sports, people who were into art, "weird" kids-- people didn't self-segregate by "type," and there was no idea of someone being "above" or "below" someone else-- you liked who you liked, and you didn't like who you didn't like.

This just adds more support

This just adds more support to my position that non-autistic people should never, ever talk about autistic issues. No exceptions.

Live & Let Live

I don't think this book would provide helpful advice to people without autism or Aspergers, but I have to say, I can see how this kind of clear-cut, "fit into the general culture" sort of advice is good for people who really struggle to have an OK life because they're unable to socialize within the broader culture.

I mean, it seems like those who are equipped to try to change our culture should be trying to do that, and the people who are depressed because they don't even have the social know-how to not be accidentally insulting to people they like should be cut a break. It's OK by me to tell them that you shouldn't call your friends fat. They might actually appreciate/need help in knowing how to dress/groom in a way to avoid being mocked. It may reinforce gender expectations, but really, it's not the end of the world. I mean, I'm a gender rebel myself. But I think that just fitting in would mean a lot to many of the autistic women and girls I've known. Not every place is the right place to fight the larger fight. Sometimes you have to let people make do how they can.

Yeah. Honestly, this line of

Yeah.

Honestly, this line of argument has made me extremely uncomfortable. Because it's one thing to go "XYZ is sexist/fatphobic/etc. so I won't buy into it or do it, even though it may make me experience social backlash." It is something entirely different to go "XYZ is sexist/fatphobic/etc., so that person standing there shouldn't do it, although they'll probably get hit with social backlash." And it is beyond defense, I think, to go "XYZ is sexist/fatphobic/etc., so that very vulnerable person over there shouldn't do it and so we shouldn't inform them that not doing it may mean social backlash and decide on their own whether or not to risk it."

Like, shaving. That example was brought up in the previous article, and... I was never told people expected me to shave, and I really, really wish I had been. I had to work it out on my own, which was horribly humiliating. I'm pretty sure it was one of the many small things that contributed to the way I was seen and treated by my peer group in high school (read: not a real human being like the rest of us.) And nowadays, if I'm going to go around with bare legs or underarms visible, I shave. I do this because as an autistic person-who-is-read-as-female, I am already weird enough and transgressing socials norms enough that I really, really cannot afford to add more to that intentionally. I leave it to NT people to fight that battle. They are generally far less vulnerable on that front than I am, and I am doing far more than they in other ways.

I guess my point is: don't tell autistic girls they MUST do these things. But don't withhold information in order to force them to be on the front line in your fight against gender norms and *isms either, that's just exploitative. Give them the tools they need to pick and choose their battles, to decide which norms they will follow and which intentionally transgress - just like NT people do!

Seconded

I think I said on another post here. Say "Shaving is expected, there is a backlash against you if you don't do so for expected occasions (ie anytime you'll be wearing sleeveless). Some people take a stand against shaving for these reasons. Go read more if you want. Or don't shave because it's too much work, but make your decision as an informed choice, not because you never knew what to do to avoid getting hit by (more) backlash." Don't tell them they *have* to do it, but do tell them what other girls are doing.

Aspies and Autists should be free to make their own decision, but just like anyone else, they should know potential consequences, (increased) social backlash among them.

I agree that autistic girls

I agree that autistic girls certainly have the right to know how to fit in, if they think it is worth it. But the way Lisa Iland puts it is that if they are backlashed, it is their fault, rather than the ignorant masses and the shitty school system's. She also acts as though mainstreming one's appearance is the favorable option of the two she mentioned. It's more important to make lots of friends in the big group, than to find quality friends in one's small niche like I did. She also rationalizes the cruel behaviors of teenagers and acts as though they have a good reason to backlash social outcasts. And the positive role of gossip? WTF?

Parents do force this kind of advice on girls all the time, and Lisa Iland only perpetuates more ableism and sexism for that matter.

There was another chapter in Aspergers and Girls saying that teenage aspies simply cannot be friends with most of their peers, since they are have so many strict social expectations on each other. It said something on the lines of "what was cool before 6th grade is now geeky and nerdy 2 months into 6 grade." As cynical as this sounds, I actually think the woman is right. The school system does a horrible job accommodating neurodiverse students, and assumes that everyone can get along if they try hard enough. The reality is that it does not work that way. Young aspies are better off being homeschooled or sent to charter schools that allow them a safer social environment, and they will learn far more social skils through that, than in a public environment where they may lose interest in friendships altogether.

Great review, this is a very

Great review, this is a very sensitive issue. Although there are things/advise in this book that are not so accurate, there are also lessons that can be applied. It's really up to the person whose reading it, if they will apply the things in the book or not. Experience is always the best teacher anyway, at least that's my opinion.

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Finally, somebody points out Lisa Iland's ableism!

I read that chapter a while back and found it very offensive and ableist. My mom used to insist similar advice on me, even after I refused it. Trust me, it really creates more problems than solves.

Yes, young aspies going into a public middle school should be aware of the harsh reality they will face. If they really want to fit in that badly, they do have the right to know how. However, they should never be made to believe that it is their fault if they have a horrible experience. First of all, the lousy school system throws a lot of serious problems under the rug to "save money." Secondly, teenagers look for any pathetic excuse to pick on others. I was picked on for being a "cat person" rather than a "dog person." No way was I going to mask who I was just to win more "friends." I was willing to shave my legs and dress a little more trendy, but definitely not change my hobbies or interests. Learning how to defend and advocate for yourself is always a better way to go than pretending your differences do not exist. Unfortunately, many autistics are not given these skills that would allow them to empower themselves.

I would love to know what Lisa Iland's brother thinks of her advice. She doesn't seem to give him any voice on his own experience, just acts like she knows his best interest better than he does, being a more "socially adept" NT with a degree in Communication Disorders. Forget that her brother may have a different set of values than her, he doesn't know what is important to him! Reminds me a lot of those people running Autism Speaks!

Whoops, I didn't mean to post

Whoops, I didn't mean to post this as a reply.

Much Better Advice from "Asperger's and Girls"

This really needs to be said more often. It may sound cynical to those who want autistics to fit in with their peers. But I feel like it is the most practical advice anyone could give to autistics and their families, especially because it is quoted directly from an autistic woman who has been through this shit and had to find alternatives.

"Many girls with AS have trouble developing basic friendship skills; the give-and-take of mutual conversation, the issue of being clean and neat so as not to stink, and other basics that often elude us. The main reason we don't develop friendship skills is that we don't develop friendships. The main reason we don't develop friendships is that we spend most of our childhoods exposed only to people we can't make friends with.

The reality is that most typical peers, especially from ages five to twenty, are not suited to Aspie friendship. These typical kids go through an assorted set of rapidly changing discarded social skills and expectations -- skills that change every few months, so that was completely cool for the kids who were three months into sixth grade is totally geeky for the kids who are five months into sixth grade. This goes on for at least one and a half decades of life!" (Jennifer Myers, 105)

In the next few paragraphs, Jennifer states, "So where does the girl with AS meet people? She meets them in common interest groups. There are dozens of science fiction book clubs, model trains clubs, chess societies, Sherlock Holmes reader societies......all over the place."..."No special interest groups around? There is another opportunity no girl with AS should miss: volunteering! (106)"

I'm a woman with Aspergers

I'm a woman with Aspergers and I was quite aware of my social awkwardness as a teen and looked for advice on how to deal with the social world of middle school and high school. Like you said, neither school (both my nerdy magnet high school or my ordinary public middle school) was anything like the popularity-unpopularity caste system implied in much of pop culture, such as movies like Mean Girls (although even Mean Girls acknowledges that it's more about a bunch of separate groups than a strict hierarchy). And as a result, the advice that supposed this was the case did nothing to help me; if anything, it just made things more difficult for me in learning to deal with the social world of those schools. I always was around mostly nerds since I took only honors classes and orchestra, and most of those kids couldn't care less about the "popular" kids - but regardless, they still had their own clique and hierarchy systems within their own groups.

I have Asperger's myself, and

I have Asperger's myself, and this advice goes against everything that an Aspergirl is. The idea of a NT (not someone with Asperger's) girl giving advice to an Asperger's girl when she clearly does not understand Asperger's at all is extremely offensive to me. We are blunt. We have strong opinions and can be exceedingly forceful when we express them unless someone gives us specific pointers on how to soften our words. We do have topics that we love to talk about and even obsess over. We prefer comfort over fashion because a lot of us have sensory issues that make wearing fashionable clothing so uncomfortable that we literally cannot do it. The same goes for white lies. We are lousy liars and it makes us exceedingly uncomfortable to do. The only points that, to me, seem valid are the ones about not interrupting to change the subject you want to talk about, which is a social skill (social skills are problem areas for us), and the one about hygiene. Now, I am not talking about using makeup and perfume and getting your hair done up all fancy like the author of the piece being critiqued, because these can be causes of sensory issues for us. What I am talking about is basic things like washing and brushing hair, bathing or showering daily, brushing teeth, etc. because we sometimes forget to do these things.

*Hopefully* better advice for Autistic teens, correct if wrong

I am an Autistic in a high school of >2000 students. For friends, I would recommend finding people through clubs if possible. If someone would reject you due to body hair, you are not losing much by not being their friend. I have told my friends to tell me if they are bored. If you want friends but have trouble volleying conversation, try finding friends with the same problem. I listen to my friends give speeches/rants/infodumps and they return the favor. This may not work for everyone, but it has worked for me and I write this in the hopes that it may help an Autistic teen reader.